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Confronted with life's fragility, Wild Pink finds sanctity in stillness

The subject of <em>ILYSM</em>, Wild Pink's fourth studio album, is the heft of emptiness.
Mitchell Wojcik
Courtesy of the artist
The subject of ILYSM, Wild Pink's fourth studio album, is the heft of emptiness.

The Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky reportedly once said he made his famously glacial masterpiece Stalker slow at the start to give certain people time to leave the theater. The term "slow cinema" — of which Tarkovsky's work is foundational — has by now been diffused by overuse, but what remains consistent among its varied incarnations is a demand for patience. Resist conventional cuts to reveal what emerges in the dead air; keep the tape and mind rolling. Challenging art finds its audience.

In his own way, frontman John Ross of Wild Pink gravitates toward these same prologues and epilogues to action, widening the aperture on minutiae only meaningful to a person forced to confront the preciousness and precarity of being alive. Six months after he started writing the follow-up to last year's heartland-windswept A Billion Little Lights, Ross was diagnosed with cancer. He turned his eye to what remained around him, familiar places lit anew. This focus culminates on ILYSM ("I love you so much"), the band's fourth studio album, which functions as an ark, freighted with "everything I thought was important but isn't anymore after the year I went through," as Ross explains on its final track. In sun-slanted motes of dust, Wild Pink found entire worlds.

A split-second tone cues in the new record like a pitch pipe, a staccato hum one might miss if they weren't searching for it. Rich with these tiny embellishments, ILYSM is a renaissance tapestry; the threads cohere from a gallery distance, but reward the most microscopic examinations. Opener "Cahooting the Multiverse" billows outward on the wings of horns, expanding synths; ruminative and gentle, evoking the muted digitization of early Broken Social Scene, Ross begins with a montage that slinks around his subdivision like roll-credits. No starting pistol to seize attention. Instead, from the outset, amid the fluttering strings, Ross presents a gentle request to the listener — to be patient, to demonstrate grace not demanded by the lacquered radio hits vying for their clicks. "All the blank spots left a mark," he sings of the neighborhood's asphalt vacancies, and in so doing outlines the subject of the record at large: the heft of emptiness.

Scholar and practitioner of transcendental cinema Paul Schrader often describes a certain dichotomy in film: most pictures lean forward, out toward the audience. But a few master the art of withholding, and those lean away, inviting the viewer to fill the distance. It's a subtle dance of tension and solicitation. When Ross leans away in his songs — whether in quieting abruptly, breaking a rhyme or refusing the cheap satisfaction of a bridge — it's almost as if he's entreating his listener — like the member of the surgical team he's addressing in the song of the same name — to hold his hand. Produced by The Antlers' Peter Silberman, who rose to prominence with 2009's very different oncological story, Hospice, "Hold My Hand," featuring Julien Baker, functions as an inverse of Silberman's song "Kettering"; where Silberman found himself a depleted caretaker in minor keys, Ross praises the compassion of a stranger. "You were there like light in the morning," he sings of the hospital worker's unthinking sainthood.

Ross's sustained whisper presents him as something of an oracle. "The bon vivant with cancer had a lot to say," he drawls with the bluesy twang of a wizened folk veteran, on "The Grass Widow In The Glass Window." (Beyond passing references to surgery and a hospital bracelet, his condition appears in the songwriting less as a plot and more as a philosophical filter.) The vocals are often doubled and pitch-shifted, as if, in flattening past and future, Ross is harmonizing with his own ghost. Spectral visitations appear throughout. On the combustive title track, it's unclear whether the person he loves so much is a phantom or a person slipping away, who moves "just like smoke from wet wood." He complicates verisimilitude with the surreal, "dandelion seeds falling ... just like summer snow," and the quotidian with the existential, as on "War On Terror," linking the Virginian autumn of his childhood to a relative's experience in combat: "That was Sarajevo / it wasn't that long ago," he sings arrhythmically over a repetitive, persistent drum part, like a shared heartbeat, as if to underscore that all mortal peril meets the same end. When one's economy of time is threatened, the typical rules of linear perception lose their bearings. In their place: the dream and the vivid history, cahooting the multiverse.

With these appeals to the grandiose, Ross resists religiosity in favor of transcendentalism, capturing and captivated by the enormity of the ocean and the sky, the maple, cedar, apple, palm, Catalpa trees — "arms up in a V / laughing at the sun like a Malick scene," he sings, invoking another master of subtlety — but doesn't fail to channel the rugged realism of the '90s indie rockers detectable in his sound: Mark Kozelek, Sparklehorse, Bill Callahan. Throughout, abjection prevents the mysticism from becoming overwrought — urine frothing on the street, gum stuck to ashtrays, a neti pot used for flushing cocaine. Privileging neither the sacred nor profane, a mourner on "Abducted At The Grief Retreat" compares a hallucination to Dracula, but reverses his fate, the monster not exsanguinating his jugular but draped "around [his] neck like a scapular," finding divinity in the vampire's capacity to save him from death.

Ross's dexterity with scale is present not just in his lyrics, but also in the songs' sonic dynamics, as he draws the listener inside private interiors — the smallness of a compact car — and out into the immeasurable beyond. Immediately following the propulsive aeronautics of "ILYSM," standout ballad "St. Beater Camry" falls hush like the vacuum of space. Pressing against the microphone, Ross's lips part and percuss, the haptic intimacy of breath a second bassline. Jazz brushes thrum the loosened snare like slow rain; elsewhere, they keep time like a distant kitchen clock. Fuller tracks like "See You Better Now" and "Simple Glyphs," which feature shredding guitar from J Mascis and Ryley Walker respectively, amplify the fragile moments.

One such foil to the softer requiems, "Sucking On The Birdshot" presents a shoegaze wall of distortion. Amid its understated surroundings, the song's majesty is that of an unexpected thunderstorm cracking open the plains, cymbals crashing like lightning. And then, even here, on the most vigorous track, Ross pulls back. The feedback silences and his murmur returns, decrescendo and frank, "You were alone when my mom said bye on the phone." The roiling feedback on either side of his elegy frames it.

The closer, mirroring "ILYSM" in name and melody but pared back to dreamy acoustics, "ICLYM" ("I couldn't love you more") arrives like a valedictory voicemail recorded on the porch, brightened by morning birds. Ross speaks into the receiver, "There's nobody home but I heard a fork drop in the sink." There is special providence in the fall of a dining utensil; the vacancy of the house is what allows for the movement, the music, the entrance of the spirit. In lingering, in asking the listener to linger too, to pause and take stock of the softest strums, the goldfinch and nuthatch, Ross dilates the seconds into minutes, minutes into expanses to which entire records could be devoted. If one loses a moment's edges, for an instant, they can have it forever.

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Hannah Seidlitz